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It Isn't a Homework Assignment Until Someone Cries ... and It Doesn't Have to Be the Student!

This Mother's Day, in the midst of familial conversation, my sister suddenly remembered that her 2nd grade son had a project due the following day. Within minutes, she had the directions out and all the materials to go along with it-- the paper plate, numerous magazines, and tape. My nephew joined her at the table and started to flip through the magazines, looking for pictures to tape to the paper plate. It was at that point that I asked what the assignment was, only to learn that the students had to pick an animal and tape it to a paper plate and then tape pictures of things the animal eats, around the plate. I asked to see the directions, where I learned that students had to use magazine pictures or pictures from the computer, only, and were told not to draw any pictures themselves. When I asked my nephew what the purpose of the assignment was, he shrugged his shoulders. My sister said she thought it was because the children just read a book about an animal and were learning about what different animals eat. However, she added that the animal from the book did not have to be the same animal that went on the plate. So, I was left asking again, What is the purpose of the assignment?

Two days later I was asked by a parent why more homework is not given at the middle school level. When I asked her what kind of homework she wanted to see, she replied "more." Another parent said that her child gets enough homework and would not want "more."

Finally, another homework case was brought to my attention at the end of this same week. This one was a concern from a parent whose child received a lower grade for not coloring an assignment, even though all the material was presented accurately. The argument was simple and understandable-- Why did my child get penalized for not coloring when all the information was correct? Good question.

Homework is, in many cases, a taboo topic to discuss. What should it look like? How should it be graded? Should it be graded at all? What is the purpose? Why is it being assigned in the first place? What can administrators do to ensure that teachers are assigning quality homework that is being used to assess student learning and inform instruction?

There are several myths surrounding homework including: 1) Teachers who give lots of homework are more challenging, 2) assigning homework makes a course rigorous, 3) homework has to be given to be taken seriously as a teacher, 4) children need homework because it makes them smarter, etc. etc. etc. The truth is homework does not benefit anyone unless it is purposeful and meaningful to the student. This year, our middle school introduced a concept called "Never No Homework" that was created by on of the AVID elective and health teachers, Diane Whiting. The thinking behind this concept is that students will work "smarter" instead of working "harder" and the learning benefits are long-lasting; if students invest in small amounts of time every evening reflecting on their daily coursework, the end result will be greater success. The list below identifies some ideas for "Never No Homework" for students, teachers and parents. Obviously, this list can be expanded and would look different at each grade level; however, the concept is the same... students always have homework, but it is relevant to what they are studying in class and requires them to reflect on what they know or need to know in order to understand the content being taught.

"Never No Homework"
· highlight important information in notes
· create vocabulary cards from the day's lesson
· organize binder
· read (independent reading book, magazine, newspaper article)
· summarize notes in 3 - 5 sentences.
· describe today's main idea in 3 sentences
· create 3 questions based on your notes
· list 3 things you learned today
· list 3 things you still need to know about today's topic
· write down one thing you wanted to contribute to the class today but didn't

Lastly, we need to look at the assignments themselves and ask, Are we really preparing our children for their future? It personally makes me upset when I walk down a hall and see poster board up with glued on pictures from magazines and the Internet. Although technology is not everything, I would argue that there there can be a richer understanding of material by infusing technology. There are sites like Glogster where you take the traditional poster that you see in most hallways and move it into the 21st century. It allows for collages of pictures (self drawn and on the Internet), movies, and songs to represent what the student knows. In our high school we have a student who decided to do a Glogster montage instead of a poster. He then linked to many different sites and then created a wiki all about the Holocaust. So the next time you see a teacher asking their students to pull out the glue stick and scissors to make a mobile in a shoe box, ask the question, What is the purpose? and Who and how is this helping the student and the teacher?

Teresa Ivey and James Yap

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